Indian Women Ask PM to Change Muslim Personal Law

Masuma Parveen

2015-12-02
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151202-muslimlaw-620 Muslim women protest against the practice of unilateral oral triple talaq in Ranchi, Jharkhand, June 13, 2013.
Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan

Fatima Bibi, a resident of the Indian state of West Bengal, was a teenager when her husband uttered the word “talaq” – Arabic for “I divorce you” – three times.

Her fate was immediately sealed.

“I wasn’t asked anything. The divorce was granted. And I did not receive a single rupee in alimony or child support,” Bibi, now in her early 20s, told BenarNews.

For the last five years, Bibi has been working as a servant in four households in Basirhat, some 60 km (37 miles) from Kolkata. She earns a meagre 2,500 rupees (U.S. $38) a month to support herself and her 5-year-old son.

Bibi (pictured below) said her ex-husband, to whom she was married for less than two years, “never bothered to check up on his son,” let alone give her money for his upbringing since the couple separated.

“If men are not allowed to get away easily, if they are forced to cough up money, most of them would think 10 times before saying the word ‘divorce,’” she said. “The local clerics should be held responsible, too. They should also pay part of the alimony."

  Bibi was unaware that a group of Muslim women in India has been working to force changes in the Muslim Personal Law, which does not give women like her any rights after marriage and favors men.

The Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), a Mumbai-based women’s organization, last week wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, urging him to declare illegal certain practices in the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act of 1937, including the unilateral oral triple talaq, polygamy and temporary marriage contracts.

Male stonewalling

The group is offering a draft version of a new Muslim Personal Law.

“Certain orthodox and patriarchal males have dominated the debate on rights of Muslim women and have stonewalled any attempt toward reform in Muslim Personal Law,” the letter said.

The letter cited a recent question from the Indian Supreme Court to the National Legal Services Authority of India about why gender discrimination suffered by Muslim women should not be considered a violation of fundamental rights under articles 14 (equality before law), 15 (prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth), and 21 (protection of life and personal liberty) of the country’s constitution.

“Justice for Indian Muslim women can be enabled either through amendments to the Shariat Application Act, 1937, as well as the Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act, 1939, or a completely new enactment of Muslim Personal Law,” the letter said.

The group, whose aim is to empower Muslim women, based its demands on its own survey of 10 Indian states in 2013.

Of the 4,320 Muslim women interviewed, 92.1 percent said they wanted the practice of unilateral oral triple talaq abolished. About 93 percent wanted a mandatory arbitration period before divorce. More than 91 percent were against polygamy, while more than 83 percent believed that codifying the Muslim Personal Law would help.

Bibi said she was “unsure if changes to the Muslim Personal Law would be Islamic.”

But she added: “I have no doubt if certain archaic practices are done away with, a lot of Muslim women will be spared the destiny forced upon me.”

Push back

But many disagree with such proposed changes.

Maulana Abdul Raheem Qureshi, spokesman for the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) told the Press Trust of India that although triple talaq, once uttered, was a crime according to the Quran, the process was considered complete and could not be changed.

“There is an old fatwa which states that triple talaq in one go is a crime, but the process will be considered to be complete. Earlier, such husbands were lashed, but now it cannot be done,” he said.

Amrita Gupta, a sociologist at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University, told BenarNews: “In a 2002 judgment, the Supreme Court intended to reduce the arbitrary nature of the triple talaq provision.

“Apart from that, a high level committee set up in 2013 to study the status of women recommended a ban on triple talaq. So there is ample precedence on which the demands of the BMMA can be placed.

Gupta added, “And let’s not forget, the clerics themselves consider this practice to be a crime.”

Kolkata-based historian Patralekha Bandyopadhyay, said that the AIMPLB was a private organization made up of one of the most conservative sections of the Indian Muslim population, so its view should not be taken as an authority.

“The state should and must take bold steps to reform and codify the Muslim personal law, irrespective of the stand of the board,” she told BenarNews.

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